Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Black Garbage Bag

I have been horrified by the stories I have heard from kids who have experienced institutional care of any kind in their lives. One of the things I have hated most over the years is the way children in the foster care system have their possessions treated. Too many kids leave one foster home for another with virtually nothing that is their own. One of the things Claudia and I decided years ago when we first adopted kids from foster care is that we would take with us whatever possessions the kids valued, even if it meant inconvenience and cost for us.

When we adopted Kyle and Mike a decade ago we shipped from Washington State to Minnesota their battered bikes, among other possessions, because we wanted them to have with them whatever familiar comforts they could have. They came with a few pictures of their earliest years of life, their clothing, some awards and certificates and a few games. They had virtually nothing, but we arranged for any they wanted to come with them.

No, it was not convenient for us. Yes, it was irritating. We spent a number of hours in our limited visiting schedule packing, taping and shipping from UPS the big items. But it made us feel that we had done the right thing for them, even when many of those same belongings were lost or destroyed within a short time of arriving in Minnesota.

What I have abhorred most in this journey is the way that foster children arrive. Almost without exception they have arrived in our home with two or three black or green plastic garbage bags filled with their clothing and whatever scanty possessions they still have. I have often wondered whether the "garbage bag" is a dark symbol for the way society sometimes views these "leftovers of society." While I understand the need for quick and inexpensive solutions to moving children in a fairly rapid way, I still have a problem with the garbage bag deal.

It's been years since we have had foster kids (in the temporary, transitional sense) in our home, so I had forgotten about my disdain of the garbage-bag-as-travel-container concept. I had forgotten, that is, until yesterday evening. On my way home from work I stopped by the county jail to pick up what remained of Mike's "property." I had called in advance, so the staff knew that I was on my way.

Following the standard protocol (enter the open doors, pick up the phone in front of the locked doors, state my business on the phone, listen for the buzz to open the locked door, proceed to the elevator, get off and wait for the "click" signaling the large, imposing doors to be open) I stepped inside and was shocked.

There was no human encounter, no staff person (uniformed or otherwise) to transact the deed. There was sitting in front of the iron doors a black garbage bag with a formal notice that indicated the property belonged to "inmate Michael Fletcher."

Now don't get me wrong. I don't expect busy officers or staff persons to greet me with a smile as they hand me my law-breaking son's belongings. I don't think that an institutional process note shouldn't be stapled to the bag. I'm not even saying it should be delivered in something better than a trash bag. It's not about the policies or procedures at the local jail.

Simply put, I was immediately drawn back emotionally to numerous trash bags I've seen over the years that have carried the belongings of our kids as they entered our home. I'm sure I am overreacting to the whole thing, but it reminds me once again that humans are not well cared for by institutional processes, whether that is the foster care system, a treatment center or a jail or prison incarceration.

There is something about the ever-present black garbage bag that bespeaks a culture where those who are separated from "normal" society -- through no fault of their own, as children in foster care, or because of illegal activity, as adults serving jail or prison time -- are little more than refuse to the rest of us.

And it reminds me that the only hope for such dispossessed people lies not in institutional environments, but in personal, human connections. Institutional systems, structures and procedures, in and of themselves, do not "rescue" children or "reform" criminals. It is good people working within those sterile, life-robbing structures who make the difference. Kudos to those who choose to work within the confines of institutional existence in an effort to help people. It really shouldn't be this hard for those caught in the system to find redemptive human connections, but I am grateful for those who do their best to make it happen.

Of Course It Bothered Me

Since I have already confessed on one blog today that I am not as patient as I wish, I will make a second confession. I am not always as gentle as I wish. Generally I can tolerate (at least externally) a great of frustration and irritation, but there comes a point where I am done, the boundary has been crossed and my volatility explodes into verbal expressions of rage.

Today was one of those days. Our elementary kids are home from school for Thanksgiving (the older kids get out tomorrow) so our regular pattern of life is a kilter. Changes in our family routine are always challenging for our children, and occasionally for us parents. In the confusion of this morning twelve-year-old Dominyk did not receive his required medications, so his behavior has been very challenging. He has a challenging array of diagnoses and when unmedicated it is a test for even the most patient. Incessant conversation, belligerence, distractibility, short attention span, obsessions and perseverating, all in one human package.

Claudia, Dominyk, Wilson and I had lunch out together today, and I decided to work from home for a little while this afternoon before my responsibilities with Salinda. We had been home a short time when Dominyk began to proclaim that our house "is so hot. It's just so hot, dad. I can't believe how how it is. I'm sweating. Can I turn the heat down? Oh, dad. It's hotter than hell in here." On and on, over and over, again and again. When I moved him beyond the confines of my bedroom desk area he went to another room to begin to assail Claudia with the same perpetual harangue. She managed to get him into the back yard so he could cool off, but in the process he was angered and sat under a tree screaming and crying, peppering his emotions with the verbal grand-daddy of them ("you f*****r") over and over. While I am uncomfortable with my children using that word, I have become somewhat immune to it over the years.

And then I heard the "ping ... ping" of rocks being pelted at our house's back walls. It was really something. His blubbering gibberish, punctuated with profanity and rocks propelled at the house in rage. It was the rocks caroming into our house's siding that pushed me over the edge. I stormed down the stairs, ripped open the door and commanded Dominyk to return into the house. He complied with my request.

In the meantime my wife, sensing my heightened emotional state, entered the room, and in an effort the diffuse the situation ended up only further enraging me. It was not pretty. With Dominyk's crying, my screaming and Claudia's imploring shrieks I'm surprised the neighbors didn't call law enforcement. There are times, I admit with embarrassment, that my wife must feel like she is raising thirteen, not twelve children. The result was that I asked (that's putting it much too nicely) Claudia to return to her work, so that I could take Dominyk for a walk. As I stormed out of the room, I happened to notice the mute witness to our emotional display, Wilson, our nine-year-old son. Wilson joined our family with older brother Leon a little more than a year ago, so he isn't used to his Mom and Dad demonstrating such poor people skills. Really, this is a rather infrequent occurrence in our home. I said nothing at the time to Wilson, making a mental note to myself to debrief with him later in the day.

Dominyk and I went for our walk, which was a calming experience for the both of us. By the time we returned home both of us were in a much better place emotionally. I spent a few moments with Claudia, apologizing for the whole series of events leading up to the altercation, and then went on to take Salinda for her driver's permit test.

The rest of the afternoon and night has unfolded in blessed calm. While Claudia was at the school watching Leon and Ricardo win their wrestling matches, I stayed home with several of the kids who helped me cook dinner. We had a nice time, actually, singing some discordant versions of several musical genres, cooking eggs and sausage and bacon and hashbrowns, dancing around the kitchen like a "bunch of ninnies" (as my grandmother would have said years ago). When there was a moment of relative peace I remembered my need to talk with Wilson about what he had witnessed.

"So, Wilson," I said, "you know about this afternoon?"

"Yeah .... " he said, his brown eyes looking at me for further inquiry.

"Umm. Things got kind of loud, didn't they?"


"So, did it bother you?"

"Of course it bothered me," he said, his shrill young voice commanding attention.

"Were you scared?" I asked, summoning my best pastor/counselor/father of troubled children sincere tone.

A look of derision, a flash of impertinence from his smoldering Asian eyes. "No, I wasn't scared."

"So what were you feeling?" I invited, using all the skills I have learned in ways to combat dysfunctional family dynamics.

"I was mad," he said in that "you really can't be that clueless, can you?" voice.

"You were mad? Mad about what?"

"I was mad because y'all were interrupting my computer game. I was just about ready to win, and then I couldn't hear it anymore. You just about screwed that all up for me."

I've learned a long time ago not to make an emotional issue out of something that isn't there. So I said simply, "I'm sorry, Wilson. I'll try to be more controlled next time."

In such an emotionally healthy way that it makes me a little jealous, all I heard from his diminutive being as he moved from the room on to something better, "Yeah, okay, Dad."

I am grateful that at least one of us home today is emotionally balanced enough to take it stride.

In Praise of Waiting

I like people to think that I am a pretty patient person, but really I am not. Over the years I have learned to wait and appear externally patient, but inwardly I roil at inefficient, slow-paced processes. I suppose it is for that reason that often my task as a parent is a frustrating one. It's been twelve years now, and I am still getting accustomed to the parenting journey, but I still have moments of irritation along the way.

There are moments, however, when patient (as much as I am able to conjure the attitude) waiting results in something praiseworthy. I had the opportunity to experience that a few minutes ago. First a bit of context. In our family's functioning Claudia and I have pretty clear responsibilities. If it has to do with grocery shopping, food preparation and menu planning it's my responsibility. If it has to do with school conferences, IEP meetings and the like, it's Claudia's job. Occasionally we shift specific responsibilities when scheduling conflicts occur, but it helps both of us to know what is within our realm.

When it comes to the driver's permit, behind-the-wheel hours and eventual driver's test, that's my job. I first accompanied one of our foster kids years ago to his driver's permit process, logging hundreds of hours behind the wheel with him. I hope that today, even though he is nearly thirty years old he remembers that gift in his life. I went with our oldest son the two times it took him to pass his permit test (he would not want you to know it took two times, so don't tell him I said that) and the one time to pass his driving test for his license. I did the same for our second oldest son, whose pattern was exactly the same (2 tries for permit, 1 try for the license). With our son Jimmy, who struggles with developmental delays, I have accompanied him some of the five or six tries toward a permit (still unsuccessful).

And today I accompanied our daughter Salinda as she passed her permit test on the first try! (She will love rubbing that in the face of her oldest brother who is obnoxious self-confidence personified). As we left the driver's examination station I handed her the keys and said, "Drive me home."

She looked at me for a moment, assessing my level of sincerity. "Really?"

"Of course. You've just passed your permit test, and now it's time to get you on the road, legally."

I had to add the last word because it was only a year ago that our most difficult year in history with her began. She illegally took our car one night in September of 2007, which resulted in a series of very difficult situations. The car was stolen twice in that night, in two separate counties, ultimately taken by our son Mike (then 18) who was erroneously given custody of the car by a beguiled officer, but that's a story I don't want to relive right now. Ironically, the car that was stolen a year ago was just diagnosed with permanent engine damage (due, I am sure, to what happened to it while it was being driven illegally all around the area, though Salinda had nothing to do with that part).

Anyway, a year ago at this time Salinda was living in a residential treatment center, under juvenile justice supervision and challenging authority at every corner. The past fourteen months have been very difficult ones for her and for us. The past two months or so, however, have shown progress on her part.

She successfully completed her confirmation process a month ago and professed her Christian faith. She was released from all of her juvenile justice requirements and oversight within the past six weeks. And now she has legally succeeded in completing driver's education and the permit test. And today I was able to be chauffeured home for the first time she has legally driven our vehicle.

And, in case you're wondering, I did have to point out to her the irony of the situation, that technically this is not her first time to drive a vehicle of ours, although it is the first time she has done so legally. I did in a light-hearted way, though, and not with a sense of vindication or mean-spiritedness. She smiled, understanding very well what I meant.

Over the past year, especially when her attitude has reared its ugly head, I have murmured and gesticulated and threatened behind closed doors to my wife that Salinda would never be driving one of our cars again. I postulated that she might never get her license while living in our house because I wouldn't pay for the class, and I wouldn't help her learn to drive. I griped and moaned, and punished anyone who would listen long enough to me about her outrageous behavior.

But today redemption has come near us. As we drove home together, she at the wheel, I in the passenger's seat, I am proud and relieved. I am proud that she has taken steps to put her life back together, and I am relieved that God has given me the grace to let go of my resentment and hostility.

Sometimes that's what waiting, even impatiently, can accomplish.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Our son Mike now has an OID. I suspect most of you who read this blog do not know what an OID is. I did not know this acronym until a few hours ago myself. An OID stands for "Offender Identification," the number provided by the state Department of Corrections which will identify Mike for the rest of his life.

It's funny how all of us have numbers associated with our lives. There are social security numbers, which by the time we are seniors in high school we can rattle off with alacrity. There is our birthdate, which typically we speak numerically, as in 01/01/70, for example. There are cell phone numbers, house phone numbers, office numbers. There is our height and our weight. For those of us watching cholesterol or blood glucose levels or blood pressure levels we have numbers associated with each of those medical measurements. Our eyesight is measured in a numerical equation of sorts. Many of us are acquainted with the mileage on the odometers in the vehicles we drive. If we are runners or walkers we may use a pedometer to measure our steps or our miles.

Every day we face a panoply of numerical excursions. But most of us do not have an OID. From what I have discovered online about the appropriate way to write an inmate in one of our state's DOC facilities, the OID must be included with the person's name or the mail will not be delivered. So our son is no longer identified by his first, middle and last names, nor even by his social security number. Now he will be a number in the criminal justice system. While I do not know how the numbers are assigned, I have to assume they have some chronological basis. If my assumption is close to correct, it means that there have been more than 226,000 others before Mike who have had such a number assigned. Nearly a quarter-million persons who have been so identified.

I suppose I am defensive about the whole thing. My experience recently recounted in this blog has soured me on many of those employed in the criminal justice system. The cynicism and biting, vulgar sarcasm continue to echo in my ears. It angers me because even those incarcerated are real people, with real stories and with people who love them. They have committed crimes against society, but they still have someone, somewhere who knows and cares about them, in spite of their choices.

The whole number thing seems to be just one more way to depersonalize an individual who is already marginalized in society. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not some bleeding-heart liberal who thinks that there is no place for incarceration in our world. I believe that when society's rules are broached there is a price to pay. But I wonder, shouldn't we as members of society be proactive in doing something rehabilitative for those in state custody. I mean, is there any better time to attempt something positive when he or she is a captive audience, supported by taxpayer dollars?

I am under no illusion that those who serve time do not deserve it, but these are people (except for the most egregious of criminals) who will one day return to our communities. Wouldn't it be better public policy to provide opportunities for change, transformation, a new way of life? I'm not sure how sitting in a jail cell for three months waiting to be released is helpful for the inmate or for the larger society. And the whole number thing irks me. I'm sure there are very good reasons why an inmate's social security number cannot be used, a number which has followed him or her since the time of birth. The assignment of a number that is used on all correspondence and identifying papers smacks a bit of Nazi Germany to me. While the number is not callously tattooed on the inmate's forearm, it might as well be.

I'm reluctant to even blog this, because I am afraid readers will think that I am somehow defending the actions that have brought Mike to this point in his life. I do not. What he has done is illegal. It has crossed the boundaries of what is appropriate, and there needs to be appropriate sanctions. I am simply pleading for some redemption in the system, rather than the simple retribution I have seen manifested in the attitudes of those who are responsible for supervising our inmate population.

I have to admit that I have complicated grief over this matter of my son being in prison. I am distressed that after all the years of effort we parents have not been able to prevent his outcome. I am frustrated that we have so few supports in the educational and social services system that could have something created a different future for him. I feel guilty that I feel relieved that he is locked up. When he is locked up it means that I know where he is, how to find him. I do not have to worry that he is sleeping on the street or on some stranger's couch, or that he doesn't have food, or that he is going to be injured or killed by those he has crossed. I am relieved, but I am grieved. And I constantly have to guard myself against the parental desire to try to convince people that for the years that Mike was in our home he was loved and valued, and that he is more gifted and valuable than his most recent choices make him appear to be.

I suppose that's what bothers me most about the whole OID number deal. Mike is more than a number, more than an inmate, more than another piece of society's refuse.

He is my son, and while I am not proud of what brings him to prison life, I still love him. OID number and all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Someone To Tell

Minutes after hearing the news that our nineteen-year-old son Mike would serve a three-month prison sentence for violating the terms of his parole, I was sitting in the visitation area at our law enforcement center, awaiting the arrival of Mike on the other side of the glass.

The indistinct orange of his county-provided jail clothing blurred momentarily as he sat before the video camera on his side and picked up the receiver.

"I'm going to prison, dad."

"Yeah, I heard. Looks like ninety days. Where are they sending you?"

"Don't know for sure. It could be [names of two Minnesota Correctional Facilities north of the metropolitan area]. They're supposed to be pretty hard core."

I pause, knowing nothing about what prisons in our state are considered "better" than others. I surmise that Mike has heard from the inside jail population information that is more relevant and reliable than would be my guesses.

"So," I ask, "are you concerned about that at all?"

"Um, a little. No, not really," he equivocates. I am sure he has some apprehensions, but in his typical way he overestimates his abilities. There is little solace for me in knowing that he has been in numerous treatment facilities over the years, including recent stays in at least four area county jails.

But I try to remain non-anxious and offer, "Well, you've been in a lot of places over the past few years, anyway."

"Yeah, but I was really kind of set up to fail this time, you know."

Ah, how many times have I heard this phrase from Mike in the past five or more years? It is always someone else who has set him up, always his friends who have gotten him into trouble, always the system that has failed. It is not he who has culpability. And yet, I understand to some degree what he is saying. He has never been able to follow the basics of society's expectations ... to obey the law and stay out of trouble, to respect authority. So, in that sense it is true that he was "set up." Sadly, though, he may spend much of his life being "set up" again and again. I wonder if he will ever be able to figure out what it means to be an ordinary citizen in any community where respect of others' boundaries is a norm.

And so I say, "Yeah, there are a lot of expectations when it comes to parole. So, tell me, Mike, how exactly did you violate the terms of your release?"

"Well, I didn't call my parole agent every night."

My eyebrows arch, I sigh inwardly. "So, you mean to tell me you are going to prison for three months because of a missed call?"

"And I was in the car with a friend who had stolen property. They thought that I was involved with that, too, but I wasn't. And they know that it won't hold up in court, so they aren't going to charge me with that."

Ah, yes. We are getting as close to the truth as Mike is willing to convey or is able to tell me, what with his faulty executive mental functioning.

"So, do you think you can visit me when I'm in prison?" he asks plaintively.

"I'm not going to make a promise that I won't be able to keep, Mike. I'll see what I can do, but I don't want to disappoint you. I will write to you and stuff, though."

"Oh, OK. Do you think you could give me some money before I get taken away today? I need to get some personal care items like shampoo and soap and stuff."

"I don't have any money with me, Mike." (I very seldom carry cash).

"Oh, they would probably take a check."

"Mike, I don't have my checkbook with me, either."


"But I'll give it some thought, and when I find out exactly where you are I'll check with them about their guidelines. I'll follow up on this for you."

"And, do you think when I'm out I can come back home?"

In a split-second my mind spins back to the red-headed nine-year-old I met in a Washington state foster home years ago. In our initial conversations with Mike and his older birth brother Kyle we talked about their moving into our home. It is haunting, really, to hear his question, because the emotional quality is akin to that day years ago when he asked about living with us in a forever family.

But he is no longer nine, and I am no longer naive.

"No, Mike, you cannot live in our home."

"Well, the restraining order will be lifted by then. I thought I could come back home."

I don't have the time or the energy to explain to Mike that the restraining order, which will technically be expired by that point if we do not have it renewed by court order, was originally initiated by us against him. I know I have explained this to him before, and I do not want to revisit that history.

"I'm sorry, Mike, but it doesn't work for you to live with us. It makes everyone else too upset. We will help you find housing and do all we can to navigate the social services system with you, but you cannot come to our house again."


Our fifteen-minute impromptu visit comes to an abrupt ending as the officer indicates it is "time to be done."

"Gotta go, Dad."

"I love you, Mike."

"Love you, too."

The receiver is summarily dropped into its holder. An orange blur stands and moves away from the monitor. And I am momentarily alone with my thoughts.

This is not an unexpected moment. I have anticipated for months now that the day would come when Mike and I would have a conversation in which we talked about a term of prison incarceration. I have been helpless to do anything for years to help Mike change his behavior. The hours of conversation and holding therapy when I would hold his screaming, skinny, fetal-balled body in my arms are gone. The multiple late nights' summons to sheriffs office to pick Mike up after days on the run are history. His place at our table, to my immediate right, has been occupied years ago by another child. Juvenile treatment center plans, therapy sessions, letters written, hugs given but unreciprocated.

Nothing we have done for more than a decade has altered this outcome, I think to myself, as I shuffle silently, alone in the small corridor that leads to the elevator which will transport me to the fresh air outside the stultifying building I have occupied for little more than an hour.

I push the doors open to my freedom as the winter air blows into my face. And then it hits me. There is only one purpose I have been able to serve today. I am the one person outside of the criminal justice system Mike has been able to tell about his plight.

I cannot change today's outcome, and seemingly never could. But for Mike today I am someone to tell. It's not much, but it's all I have to offer. And maybe, I pray, it is enough.

Moving Up to the "Big House"

Our son Mike has taught me so many things about the social and criminal justice systems, and it's an education I would never have sought without the connection I have as his father. There is no way I would willingly sit through meeting and meeting with frustrated, overworked social workers looking for the "answer" to Mike's dilemmas. On my own I would never have visited any of the many treatment centers Mike has called "home" over the years. And I would not have spent as much time visiting in jail settings without his presence.

Soon, it appears I will have the opportunity to visit him in a Minnesota State Correctional Facility ("prison"). But I get ahead of myself.

On Monday I received a pleading call from Mike that I attend his parole hearing. The next day his parole agent called to give me the details "since you asked to be present for the hearing." It was a voice mail message, but I audibly responded, "Uh, no. I did not ask to be present for the hearing. Mike asked me to be present. That's not quite the same thing." She mentioned in her message that I might not be allowed to be part of the hearing, but that she would ask the Parole Hearing Officer on my behalf. I pondered calling her this morning to decline the opportunity, but then hung up the phone before she answered. I decided to show up anyway, if for no other reason than to remind Mike that we love him no matter what he has done.

Per instructions, I arrived at the county jail early, telephoned from the lobby (as is the procedure there) and was buzzed to the third floor. Upon arriving, I waited for the click of the steel bars indicating I could push open the massive doors and enter. There is always a sense of finality as the doors "click" shut behind me, and I am faced by uniformed officers in a musty, grungy, time-worn building that has housed inmates for three decades. The bright fluorescent lights reflect on the shiny floors and there is a sense of abject silence. I am led this morning to wait in the cubicle in the command center. Space is at a premium, and on this floor there is no place for someone to wait who is not uniformed or otherwise directly connected with incarcerated life.

Like anywhere, employees at the local law enforcement center vary in the depth of their humanity. While all are steeled for their work with the criminal element, some are more humane than others. In the cloistered cell with several others (I being the only one without a work-related reason to be there) I heard more cynical, brash commentary than I choose to blog here. I will choose not to violate the workplace environment of those I overheard, because I was, after all, in their space. Suffice it to say that what you see on television or hear from those on the "inside" about those who work there is not far from the truth. Vulgarity (and I am no prude), personal commentary and cynicism abound.

During the wait I spoke with Mike's parole agent. She is professional, but guarded. We have what I would consider to be a good conversation. She expresses her concern that there aren't many options for someone like Mike, who has consistently engaged in criminal behavior, and who violates the terms of his release. Eventually I ask her, "What will be your recommendation?"

"I'm recommending ninety days incarceration, which is according to the state guidelines," is her response.

I commiserate with the few frustrating options available to her, and take a moment to remind her that over the course of our years as Mike's parents we have discovered how little is available that would be helpful, especially for someone who is as defiant as he is. Those who do not believe "oppositional defiant disorder" is a legitimate disorder really need to meet someone like our son.

I stand in the crowded cubicle for an hour's time. Others filter in and out, oblivious to my presence, unsuspecting that I am Mike's father. In casual conversation one of the employees asks another, in a voice that bespeaks "let's make a bet on this," "So, is Mr. Fletcher going back ... um, I mean, going for his first time [to prison]?" The professional young male officer says, "We don't know yet." The interlocutor steps back out of the cubicle. Ten minutes later I hear the commentary of two less-than-professional (in my opinion, of course) employees, "So is Fletcher going to prison?" "F***, I hope so," is the response.

I am momentarily enraged. After all, the name they are battening about is not simply my son's last name. It is my last name as well, a gift given at the time of adoption years ago, and now only a surname to be poisoned with cynical vulgarity. I choose to say nothing. It is not my space, nor my place to defend a barely-adult son who has violated the law (and I'm sure the personal lives of these officers) many times. What parent can defend such an errant son in such a situation?

So I stand quietly, awaiting the verdict. I can see through reflections on the glass into the room where my son, his attorney, his parole agent and the parole hearing officer sit. Mike's head is impassive, unmoving. His attorney is calm. His parole agent is unseen, but the parole hearing officer gesticulates, his hands speaking volumes as he communicates his decision to Mike.

Minutes later they emerge. Mike is directed toward his cell. His attorney and the parole hearing officer head for the exit. His parole agent enters the cubicle, apologizes for the time I have spent standing without being asked to be present for the hearing. "He received ninety days in prison. He'll leave sometime today for one of two locations," and she names the possibilities, both miles north of us.

I thank her for her time and exit in time to be momentarily with the departing hearing officer and attorney. The attorney offers his hand, identifies himself and says, "Are you Mike's dad?" I respond affirmatively, and he asks if I have any questions about the process.

"Oh, no," I reply. "We've been through this kind of thing with Mike many, many times."

But what I don't say as they make their way to the elevator is: "Many, many times, but not with a prison sentence. This is new territory for all of us."

Just as I am about to leave the humane officer I describe above calls to me, "Mr. Fletcher, would you like to have a quick video conference with your son?"

And so I do, the details of which I will blog in my next entry.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Manipulation or Affection?

There is something deep within the healthy human psyche that abhors manipulation. To be emotionally coerced by another goes against the gain of all that a healthy person understands about relationships. Healthy humans know that relationships are characterized by mutual respect, reciprocity and a genuine desire to be in connection with another. Even healthy humans encounter moments of frustrations and irritation with others, but with appropriate relational effort understanding and healing occur. But to be manipulated feels dank and musty. It is the slippery feeling of wondering whether it is you the other desires or what you can offer. It is the difference between subject and object, and the difference is strikingly different.

It is, I suppose, one thing to be manipulated by a boss who is trying to get more efficient work accomplished through your position. When it's happening in your place of employment it still is uncomfortable, but at least it can be escaped, even if for the remaining thirteen or fourteen hours of the day when you are not at work.

But it is another thing to be manipulated by someone close, and when it is your son or daughter, it feels especially bad. When we experience manipulation we question ourselves. Is there something about us that is so weak that we are "taken in" time and again by a child who is adept at getting what he or she wants? How do we extend love to a child while protecting our personal boundaries from being broached time and again. Or is love something that opens oneself to such pain?

I am fortunate to be married to an emotionally healthy woman, so in that most primary relationship in life I am comforted and contented. But I am not so fortunate when it comes to our children, and because we have adopted all of them, I wonder sometimes how it might (or not?) be different in families where children have joined the family through birth. Are there some primal wounds so deep for adopted children and their parents that there is always a distance of sorts? That's a question I cannot answer, although there are times when I long for a satisfying answer.

I have learned that the only thing I can control is how I respond to a situation. I cannot change the way my child does what he or she does. I can guide, I can live by example, I can correct, I can consequence ... but I cannot choose the way my children choose to live their lives, especially as they grow into adulthood.

My thoughts are provoked by a message I received on my cell phone last night. It is my practice not to answer calls whose numbers I do not recognize, figuring a message can be left so that I can call back as I deem necessary. Last night, after I had gone to bed, there were four calls from the same number, one after the other. Finally there was a message left. I listened to it this morning.

The background noise is a combination of muffled voices and institutional sounds as I hear our son, Mike, in a voice hollowed by the large room from which he calls:

"Dad. It's me, Mike. I'm just calling to let you know that I turned myself into jail last night. I'm wondering if you could buy me a phone card for $20 so I could call you. And maybe you can visit me. I love you. Bye."

Manipulation or affection? Is Mike calling because he cares about me or because he cares about himself? That's probably an unfair question to ask of someone who is nineteen and whose organic brain issues mean that he processes things much differently than those of who are typical. Is this call an effort to gain more money from his dad, or does he sincerely seek connection because he finds himself in trouble once again?

Manipulation or affection? It is probably both, in some disjointed, strange, atypical way my son feels as much connection with me as he can feel, but for purposes of self-preservation needs to be in connection as well.

The bottom line is simply that I am Mike's dad. I made that decision years ago. And the good thing is that I can be Mike's dad, love him and care about him and still draw boundaries for myself. I will maintain connection with him, although it may be through written letters than face-to-face contact for now. I remain committed to him, but my checkbook may remain closed. I will help him navigate the confusing world of social services assistance, but the doors to my home will remain off limits.

While I cannot choose (or even discern) whether Mike is manipulating me or caring about me, I can choose how I will respond. And I will choose affection ... I will choose connection ... and I will protect myself.

I have learned that with difficult, attachment-disordered children/young adults, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Twenty Days and Another Chapter Closes

When we have not heard from Mike in a day or so our first step is to check the online county jail roster, and since Mike already told me late last week that he needed to turn himself in, I was not surprised when I checked this morning and found his name on the list. In Mike-like fashion, he turned himself in at 10:30 PM on Sunday night, when he has known since at least Friday that he needed to show up at jail. I'm sure he figures he has nothing to lose; if law enforcement had run into him in the intervening they would simply arrest him, saving him the need to find a ride to jail.

As I suspected, the reason for his arrest was not because he was stayed out of the county overnight without consent of his parole officer. The charges as listed online are theft. Again, this is no surprise, because he has been involved in numerous theft charges in the past couple of years, including motor vehicles and theft by receiving stolen property. It appears that Mike has now expanded his retinue to include the theft of livestock. I'm not sure what is involved in that whole charge, but I'm sure it is an interesting story. Much more interesting than the story he was trying to spin with me on Friday about having to spend the weekend in jail because of an out-of-county overnight stay. The only thing truthful about his conversation with me Friday is that the arresting agency (which is also included online) is "community corrections," which means his parole officer.

Lying and manipulation are part of the whole-person package when dealing with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Our son has the disadvantage of also having a high IQ (not at all FASD individuals do), which means that he has just enough brilliance to charm and manipulate others and get himself into difficult situations. FASD is not his only diagnosis, so by the time you compute all the factors together it presents a rather dismal picture, indeed.

I could spend more than a paragraph articulating my opposition to alcohol consumption by pregnant woman (and, to be honest, alcohol consumption in general), but I will hold myself back for the moment. My irritation turns too quickly to disgust these days when I think of all the money spent and lives affected by the consumption of a substance so potentially lethal to so many in society. I will now bite my tongue lest you think me a Puritanical type (which I am most assuredly not); I have seen personally too many evidences of the tragic results of alcohol consumption to say nothing.

Now, once again, we will wait to see how the criminal justice system deals with our son. I was present at his last sentencing, so I heard with my own ears the dire warnings of the judge in question. He articulated clearly that Mike's time for leniency had run out, and that any violations of the conditions of his release would result in twenty-two months of prison time. Mike, of course, had an alternative explanation of his plans at that time. It was to get out of jail (which he did three weeks ago this morning) and work to pay off some of his thousands of dollars of restitution, stay clean and sober and out of legal trouble, then choose to "execute his time," which he was certain would be at the local level (not a state prison) because of the overcrowded prison situation. If he were to "execute" his time Mike speculated that he would be out within seven months and not have to leave the area. Now, however, he will have an additional criminal charge, so that might change the outcome. Who knows?

What I do know today is that the citizens of our community are once again safe from the criminal exploits of my son. And that both pains and relieves me.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"You're a Priest For Heaven's Sake"

It is a cold November night, but I needed to walk, so I called for my dog Gizmo and invited our son Dominyk (12) to join me. On nights like these there is no need to worry about encountering other walkers with dogs, or other walkers for that matter. It is a solitary pursuit, but not really, because Dominyk is gregarious. He never quits talking. Toward the end of tonight's walk he asked me, "So, dad, when you die what happens to your brain?"

"Well, since your body doesn't need it any more it stops working."

"No, I mean, what happens to your brain when it's been in the ground for a few weeks?"

"Umm, I suppose it kind of shrinks and decays. When your body is dead it doesn't work anymore."

"So your brain doesn't go to heaven?"

"Well, none of your body goes to heaven. Your spirit goes to be with God, but your body is finished with its work and it stays in the ground. You don't need your brain anymore at that point."

"Your brain doesn't get to go to heaven?"

"No, Dominyk. Just your spirit, that part of you that makes you who you are and that lives forever."

"Well, without a brain how do we recognize other people?"

"You don't need a brain to do that in heaven."

"So how do you know, then?"

"Umm, I'm not sure exactly. But at that point there must be a different way of knowing that we'll know about then."

"You don't know the answer to this?"

"No, Dominyk. There are some questions in life that we cannot answer right now."

"You're a priest for heaven's sake, and you can't even answer that question? You're supposed to know that stuff!"

I am grateful for the reminder that we feeble humans, even we humans who have been theologically trained and spiritually disciplined, do not have all the answers. Even if, for a twelve-year-old, it kind of wrecks your credibility.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Cryptic Explanation

One of the ways I maintain my sanity in the midst of crazy stuff with my children who are especially challenged (and challenging) is by blogging about it. Taking the time to write about and reflect upon my experience in the blogosphere helps me feel that perhaps I am not alone in this bizarre journey. That is not to say that all of my children are challenging or draining -- we do have children that nourish life and make my existence a blessing -- but those who perplex me receive more blog time.

So, Mike calls me this afternoon.

"Hi, Mike."


"Yes, Mike."

"I'm calling to let you know I didn't turn myself into law enforcement last night."

"Oh. Why not?"

"Well, I didn't have the money for my Huber release fees."

"I gave you a check yesterday to cover that, Mike."

"Yeah, I know. But, um, someone stole it from me."

"Someone stole it from you? I don't believe that, Mike."

Silence in the midst of lots of background noise on his end.

"Mike, I watched yesterday as one of your friends went into the bank. I'm assuming he took the check I gave you and cashed it."

"What do you talking about?"

"I'm talking about the white car you were in yesterday with three [and I describe them] other guys."

"I wasn't in a white car yesterday. What car are you talking about?"

By this point I wonder just how confused another human being can be, and how Mike can possibly not know what I am talking about.

"Mike, I met you yesterday at [Name of] Bank. You were in a white car with three other guys. You got out of that car, stepped into mine and I gave you a check for $60."

"No you didn't."

"I didn't? Then where did you see me to get the check?"

"I don't know."

"So, anyway, that's where you got the check. Then I drove across the street, watched from the parking lot and after a few minutes one of your friends from the car left the bank and got back into the car."

"Oh, he was getting money from his account."

I didn't even bother to go down that road with Mike. If I had, I would have asked him why the friend waited until after I left to get money from his account. But like I say, I didn't bother. I've learned not to pursue much questioning from someone who is confused and lies with such alacrity.

"OK. Hmm. Sounds like it must have been quite confusing," I summarize.

"Yeah. So, I didn't go to jail last night because I didn't have the money."

"So," my cynical mind wants to say, "now you have to pay to go to jail?" But I said nothing.

"And you'd better put a stop payment on that check if you don't want to lose your $60," he says, trying to sound helpful.

"Well, Mike, it costs at least $25 to put a stop payment on a check, and I want to see who cashed it after all."

He then proceeds to tell me the name that will be on the check, followed by some convoluted story about how this person was going to cash the check and give him the money to take with him to jail. Lie upon lie upon lie. I am silent. He is waiting for me to offer to pay another $60 so he can obtain work release from jail. But Mike does not know that I am now done doling out money. I have reached the end of my boundaries, and I am now finished.

"So, you can come visit me tomorrow at jail, if you want," he says.

"I'll have to see what my schedule is like, Mike. Sunday's are busy days for me."

"Yeah, OK. Well I've gotta go."

I say goodbye and the call ends. I have learned a long time ago that Mike will do or say whatever he feels he need to at any given moment. I have learned that with the combination of his mental health diagnosis, the group of friends he runs with and his history with the criminal justice system that I cannot trust much of what he tells me. So I am not disappointed, and I am not surprised. I will continue to love Mike as I have for a decade, but I will now draw tighter boundaries between us because once again his time on the "outside" has come to a screeching halt.

While he does not communicate it to me, it is my sense that Mike has violated his parole, that his officer found out, called him on it and directed him to jail. It is likely there will be a hearing next week to determine whether or not his violation is substantial enough to bounce him back into jail or perhaps toward the twenty-two months prison term he was "promised" if he violated the terms of his release. He believes it unlikely that he will get back out any time soon, so he wants me to stop pay the check so that it appears to me that he cares about the situation.

We'll see what the truth is once the new week dawns.

Friday, November 07, 2008

An Unfolding Mystery

Parenting an adult son with FASD (and other assorted diagnoses, including PTSD and RAD) is always a mystery. There are moments that seem like sincere, honest connections between two people who love each other. These moments are infrequent, and overshadowed by the consistent intuitive sense that I am about to be taken advantage of once again. Over the years (Mike has been part of our family for nearly ten years; he is now 19) I have learned to erect boundaries between him and our family, for their protection.

While Mike is not violent or aggressive towards family members, he has stolen from us for years, and when allowed to be in our house (we have had a restraining order against him now for nearly a year) has brought illicit drugs, alcohol and questionable friends doing the same with him. His erratic behaviors and unsavory companion choices have led us to take legal action to keep him away from our physical property and our minor children.

He has now been out of jail eighteen days. And tonight he will go back. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This week I haven't heard much from Mike. In the first two weeks following his release I heard from him fairly regularly, at last once every 36 hours, but by the time this week rolled around it has been about once every 48 to 60 hours. Yesterday morning a call came on my cell phone while I was at the office sporting a number that looked vaguely familiar. Because Mike has no cell phone he uses whatever phone is at his disposal at the moment, so there hasn't been one consistent number. I answered. It was, in deed, Mike.

"Hey, dad. You think you could come pick me up in [a town 30 miles away from us]."

"Well, I'm at the office, Mike, and I have an appointment in about an hour from now. What are you doing [in that town]? I thought you could not be out of the county limits."

"Yeah, well, I just can't leave the state. I can be out of the county, but I can' t be out overnight."

"It's 8:30, Mike. Were you out of the county last night?"

"Um, yeah, I was, actually. But don't tell [the parole officer]."

"Well, I'm not going to call her up, Mike, but if she asks me I will tell her the truth."

"OK. Whatever. You think you can give me a ride back?"

I sigh inwardly, but I have told Mike that I will do what I can to assist him in his life on the "outside." "I can give you a ride, but I will have to leave now. Where will you be?"

There is muffled conversation as he puts his hand over what we would have called in years past "the receiver" (I'm not sure what that's called on a cell phone). "Can I call you back in five minutes?" he asks. I agree and the call ends.

The minutes tick away. It is now ten minutes later, and I know that if I do not walk out of the office at that very moment I will not have time to both provide transportation and meet my appointment at 10 AM. I decide to begin the trek and call on the way so I don't lose any time.

I am seven minutes into my trip when the cell phone rings. "Dad?" "Yes, Mike, I'm on my way. Where will you be?" "Umm. I hope you haven't gone too far yet." "Not really, just about seven miles." "Good. My friends can give me a ride back."

I am both irritated (but not that much, since it's only seven minutes into the thirty minute one way journey) and relieved. Mike continues, "Yeah, my friend has a court appearance in [the metro area, which is 90 minutes away], so I'm going to go with him and then we'll come back tonight."

"Do you have to work today, Mike?" I ask, reminding him that if he misses much more work time he will be fired.

"At 4 this afternoon. I'll have time to get back. Oh, does Kyle still live [in the same metro area where he is headed]?"

"Yes, he does."

"What's his cell phone number?'

I hesitate. For years I have not given that information to Mike, but now Kyle is a college graduate, a responsible mature adult, working full-time and occasionally bemoaning his lack of involvement in Mike's life. (Kyle and MIke are birth brothers). I agree to give him the cell number but will not (and Mike did not ask) disclose Kyle's address. I figure the worse that can happen is that Kyle can choose not to answer the call.

I do not hear from MIke again for 24 hours. This morning he calls me back. "Um, dad, I'm going back to jail tonight."

"You are?" I ask, unsurprised, but maintaining an even tone with my son.

"Yeah. The parole officer found out I was out of the county overnight, and she's telling me I need to turn myself into jail before the end of the day. I'll have to stay the weekend so that she can see me on Monday. It's bogus, though, to have to go to jail because of that."

"Well, Mike, it is part of the terms of your release, you know. You have to stay in the county or you are violating your release."

"Yeah. Umm. I'm wondering if you could pay my Huber fees?"

I pause. I know what Huber Fees are, but I want to make sure I know what he is talking about. (In Minnesota, perhaps in other states, too, "Huber" is the reference to work release for the incarcerated).

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I have to pay $60 if they are going to let me work this weekend. Otherwise I can't get out and I'll lose my job."

I am reluctant to do this, but I am caught between two places. I can say "no" and quash his ability to work and perhaps result in his job loss. I can say "yes" and at least allow him to continue to work. I am unhappy with either solution, and in years past it was very clear what I would have done. I would have said, "Sorry. You knew the risks, you took them and you get what you get."

I decide this time to test the situation. "I suppose I will do that, Mike."

"Thanks. Do you think you can also buy me a warm winter coat?"

"Pardon?" I ask, incredulous, but really I shouldn't be. The past decade should have taught me that there are no limits to the requests of an attachment disordered person. I continue, "No, MIke. I'm not going to buy you a coat. That's why you have a job."

"Oh. I was hoping you could take me to [sporting good chain] and get me a cheap one, like one for about $150."

I am astounded that he would think, first of all, that $150 is a "cheap winter coat," and secondly that I would consider it.

"No, Mike. I don't have that much money to spend."

"So, you can give me the $60, though?"

"Yes, I will do that. Who should I make the check to?"

"I don't know. Why don't you just bring cash?"

"Um, no, Mike. I'm not going to give you cash. I'll only write a check."

"Yeah, but I don't know who it should made to."

"Well, you can ask at the jail when you go there. I'll give you a check with the 'payable to' line not filled in. You can fill it in when you know."

Now, dear reader, before you chastise me for foolish gullibility, understand that this is part of my plan. I want to see if Mike will, in fact, do what I've asked of him.

"So, dad, you'll give me a check with the 'payable to' line blank and then I can just fill it in?"

"Yes, Mike. You will fill it in at the jail with what they tell you. Where do you want me to meet you?"

We discuss a couple of options, and I hear him consulting in a muffled fashion with his companions. "How about [the name of the bank where my checking account is held]?"

The location immediately make me suspicious, but I agree. In a few minutes I arrive in the parking lot and pull up to the car in which are four young adult males. I stop, Mike gets out and comes to my car. He sits in the front seat and bemoans his fate. "It's just bogus, dad. She [the parole officer] shouldn't be making me go to jail over this."

I remind Mike, patiently, that he has violated the terms of his release. I ask how she knows he was even out of the county overnight.

"I don't know. She probably could tell from the phone number I used to call her or something."

He is prevaricating, filling space (aka "lying") hoping I will not think there's more to the story. I am pretty sure there must be more to the story, though.

"Yeah, dad, I was just thinking, it's going to be more than $60. There's a booking fee, too. Do you have an extra $10?"

"No, Mike, I do not. My checkbook is at home."

"Oh." He hesitates, can think of no other way to add to his monetary booty and opens the door.

He gets out, grabs the clean clothes that I have recently washed for him and today delivered to him, and I say, "Give me a call next week when you know what's going on." He says, "No, I'll call you tonight." We exchange goodbyes.

The car to which he returns does not move. In fact there sees to be no inclination at all for them to move. Truth by told, it seems Mike is stalling. With exaggerated effort he steps out of the car, takes out his freshly washed hoodie and begins to put it on. It takes a long time. I decide to pretend I am oblivious to the tactic, and I depart.

But I drive across the highway to a parking lot where I can watch what transpires. It takes a couple of minutes to get there, but the car still has not moved. I wait one minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. Four minutes later one of Mike's friends from the white car exits the bank doors and gets into the car. Immediately the car departs.

I have good reason to believe I have been set up. While I do not yet have the details in hand, I think the truth is something akin to this. The reason Mike's parole officer knows he was outside the county is because he was involved in something illegal there (how else would she have reason to know he was gone?) He has been ordered to present himself at law enforcement tonight because he will have a hearing to determine whether his parole has been revoked, and that hearing will not take place until early next week. He needs to be in jail to ensure that he does not abscond. The $60 is not for any "Huber Release" fees. It is for his friend in the car to repay back for something. While his friend would have preferred the $70 [or the $150 referenced above for a new winter coat], he will take $60 for now.

As soon as my check appears online (so that I can see who is on the "payable to" line) I will be able to close my "case." If, in fact, the check shows no evidence of having gone through the county law enforcement system to pay "fees," this may well be the last time I will help Mike financially.

And, if it turns out that the recommendation is that Mike serve his time [twenty-two months in prison] for violating his parole yet again, it may be that I will not need to worry about it for some time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Making History

This is not a political blog, although politics have always been of interest to me. Earlier in my life it was my plan to become a United States Senator, so every two years when the election process heats up I am an interested observer. I have chosen not to become overly involved in the political process at the local levels because of my role as a spiritual leader in the church. My first commitment is to God and to the vocation to which I have been called, and I am reluctant to do anything that would diminish my ability to lead. So, while I hold pretty clear political opinions, and while my preaching seeks to connect my Christian faith understanding with the world, I do not believe God is a Democrat or a Republican. Frankly, I find political extremism on whatever end of the spectrum that is wrapped in religious ideology a bit frightening. I am as uncomfortable with dogmatic conservatives who claim God is theirs to shrill liberals who co-opt Deity in other ways. My position is that politics can easily become an idol for any person of faith. I want to avoid that, while continuing to recognize that God expects us to be involved in political process because that's how we, as a society, care for others and provide stability for human empowerment.

In any case, I exercised my right to vote this morning. At 6:50 AM I was standing in line (number fifteen) outside my precinct awaiting the opportunity to cast my ballot. Our second-oldest son Rand (now 20) was with me (number sixteen) as well. Two years ago Rand voted for the first time with me, and this year he is voting for the second time with me. Just a few minutes ago I spoke to our oldest son Kyle (21) who lives in the metro area; he experienced frustration at the polling place, but has also voted. Our son Mike (19) is a convicted felon and is excluded from voting. At some point today my wife Claudia will also vote. I'm not sure that she and I have ever accompanied one another to the polls, and historically she and I have sort of cancelled out one another's votes. She is rather close-mouthed about her political preferences, while I am fairly talkative about mine, at least at home. Our kids at home find it amusing to bait us with issues and then decide whether they're going to side with mom or dad. I always remind them, though, that politics is a human, faulty process with no guarantees, and that each person seeking office has their own peccadilloes. There is none righteous, no not one. (Hmmm. I think I've read that somewhere before).

Today, however any of us choose to vote, we will make history. Either the first African-American man will be elected president, or the first female will be elected Vice President. (As you can see, I don't give third parties much credence at the presidential level). And whatever your political persuasion, it seems like an election year when things need to shift in our country's corporate life. With the economic crises and other issues belaboring us as a nation, it seems that all of us with brief a collective sigh of relief when today is over. Whatever the outcome, we are tired of the political advertising, the intensity, the inactivity that currently characterize our common life as US Americans.

If you are reading this before the polls close, and you have not yet voted, do it. You will make history.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Perfect Attendance and a Special Education Assessment

As you might imagine, with nine kids at home (seven of whom are in seventh grade or higher) there are nights when our family transportation schedule is more than a bit challenging. This was one of those nights. We have one son in Boy Scouts (which meets at our church, approximately three miles away from our home). We have four other kids who will be involved in winter sports (the orientation meeting for winter sports was tonight). And we have our older daughter who begins driver's education classes tonight. We have two parents with two vehicles (our third vehicle is currently out of commission) needing to head in different directions.

Boy Scout Dominyk (12) was delivered by his PCA to their meeting at 6 PM. Tonight the Scouts ate pizza together and then canvassed the area to sell tickets for their annual Spaghetti Dinner. It was my responsibility to pick up Dominyk after my assigned task.

Claudia cared for the Winter Sports Orientation meeting and getting our daughter Salinda (15) to and front driver's ed.

My assigned task was to accompany Ricardo (14) to his Soccer Banquet.

Ricardo is another of our delightful children. He is an introvert, so he talks little but hears and understands everything, even the subtlest of innuendo or turn of phrase. He has been with us about five years after we met him in Guatemala at the same orphanage where our son Jimmy/Ben (16) grew up. In these years Ricardo has listened a lot and talked little so his English is sparse but quite good. It is still heavily accented in a voice that has always seemed deeper than his stature should allow. He is handsome, athletically gifted and emotionally stable.

And he is learning disabled. From the moment he entered our family's life Claudia and I could tell his academic progress would be halting. It wasn't the language challenges of leaving behind Spanish for English at the age of nine. His math skills are pretty good, and he is quite artistic, but ready has always been a horrendous challenge for him. I am no expert is learning disabilities, but I have had a pretty strong notion for years that he is at the least dyslexic. Because of his transitional international status, the school policy and practice (perhaps this is a widespread practice; I'm not sure) has been to hold off on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for at least five years after a child enters the country. So Ricardo has struggled and waited for years educationally due to this policy. It has now been five years, so this Fall Ricardo will finally have an IEP that will hopefully address his needs.

He is all too aware of his learning challenges, and he is staking his future success on playing soccer. When I ask him what he wants to do when he grows up, what I hear, in his heavily staccato English is: "Dad, I want to play soccer." And a good soccer player he is, but we know he needs to have a better academic foundation if he expects to play soccer beyond high school.

Tonight was the Soccer Banquet, and I sat by my quiet son Ricardo. He knows other players on his team, but evidently doesn't talk much with them either. Tonight's award for Ricardo was a "Perfect Attendance" award. He did not miss a single practice session and his achievement was acknowledged. Of the many other soccer players present tonight, less then ten received a similar award, so I guess it is more than an average expectation kind of award.

I'm not sure what will become of Ricardo. He is in eighth grade this year. He has a lot of academic progress to make. He is a good athlete. He is emotionally healthy. He is an enjoyable kid to have in our home. And tonight we are celebrating his soccer achievement and his impending IEP.

The Shrimp and the Great White Shark

Yes, Virginia, I am father to children other than Mike, although he has occupied much of my blog's attention over the past couple of weeks. His life is a circuitous one, interesting in many ways, but his is not the only life who is part of mine. I have a spouse and I have eleven other children who add so much depth and meaning to my days. They do not always receive here the attention they rightly merit. (A subtle reminder that it is never a good idea to measure a person's life simply by what they read on one's blog).

Of the twelve years I have been a father, I must say that many of those years have been filled with emotions ranging from moments of joy to periods of real desolation. Caring for children whose histories and biologies are mysteries is a challenging proposition. There are many moments when I have entered too deeply into their past traumas or present defiance and lost myself. I continue to learn, day by day, what it means to be a "self-differentiated" person who can maintain a hold on my own sense of being. To lose oneself as an adoptive parent is a frightening proposition for both child and parent.

There are many heavy, heavy moments in the task of parenting older adopted children, so when moments of lightness appear they are too often forgotten or relegated to the trash can of frivolity. Because of my own personality qualities, I continually have to remind myself to find more opportunities to bask in the light than to lurk in the shadow of my family's existence. They are really two different modes of being, the one offering hope and the other continual disillusionment.

One of the bright lights in my existence currently is our youngest son, Wilson, who is now age nine. He and his birth brother (13) have just celebrated their first anniversary in our family. They have been so delightful. It is almost as if I have been holding my breath for a year to wait for things to crumble. With many of our kids (especially those whom we adopted earlier in the journey) it took only a few weeks before things really fell apart. Wilson and Leon, however, are very emotionally healthy and exhibit all the signs of children who were emotionally cared for in their early lives. They are, I am sure, "normal," but for a family like ours, formed through adopting older children with considerable emotional challenges, they seem unique and special.

Wilson, who is a slender, spindly child who will soon by ten, looks to be about five or six. His petite frame and diminutive stature belie the truth of his age and sophistication. It is always a surprise, then, when a witticism rolls from his puckered lips. One of his favorite things to do is to come bounding into my bedroom and jump into my lap. I have a comfortable chair in a corner by a lamp and spend a lot of my reading (and television, when I watch it) time there. As his slight frame nestles into my ample one, the warmth of his emotional presence lights the corner. We exchange teasing words on occasion, or share a candy from his Halloween bag or watch a television program together. It is a joyful, heart-warming experience.

Yesterday as he snuggled into my side I said, "How are you doing, Shrimp?"

With his crescent-shaped brown eyes sparkling and a smile filling his gap-toothed grin, he responded, "Who are you calling shrimp, great white shark?"

In our multicultural family where we who are caucasian are now "outnumbered," my rejoinder was, "Hey, are you being racist or just commenting on my size?"

He giggled happily and we shared another moment of attachment happiness.

These moments of happy, healthy attachment have been so far and between that when they occur, even after twelve years, they surprise me. While I love all of my children equally, I have found that I love them differently. Some of them are so very hard to love because of the continual emotional rejection and distance they convey, but this one is a delight to my soul. He is just so easy to love, warmth received and shared, love reflected and received.

Life for a parent as it was meant to be.